I read an amazing book this weekend. Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. In a sense a crime novel, but I normally have no interest in reading such books. I picked it up in our legitimately local book store, Square Books, on Friday because a sign above it said, “Local Author. Meet Tom Franklin, Wednesday,” and I thought, that’ll be fun, to read a book this weekend and meet the author. I did something similar last year, actually. Met a young woman at a local coffee shop, who’d graduated from the university where I was teaching and was back in town for a book signing.
My taste in diversions has changed considerably since 2007. I’ve never enjoyed watching or reading about violence, but crime solving, especially in television form, I could like. My first non-children’s novel reading came through Stephen King, and I’d burned through all his books by the time I was about thirteen. Horror, some mystery, I didn’t enjoy that much after I turned about fifteen. But if I turned on the television, I’d normally want to waste some time watching some version of Law & Order. After December 2006, January 2007, I couldn’t. I can no longer tolerate watching or reading about people doing horrible things to one another.
So it was a surprise to me that I read Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter in the space of a weekend, and after spending full days with Samuel and Josh at our first football game and off on a long shopping trip, stayed up past 10pm two nights in a row to do so. What affected me? I’m not a book reviewer, but obviously, his high-quality writing helped. The story as well, it worked, and it’s still working on me.
(and here goes my tangent)
We’re approaching the 4-year anniversary of Natan’s birth and death season. By October 2006, I was supposed to be comfortably pregnant, securely past miscarriage stage. For some reason, though, I wasn’t feeling safe. I constantly looked up statistics about pregnancy loss and was scared, insecure. Especially when we reached twentyish weeks and I just felt like hell, all the time, when I was supposed to feel good. When Natan died, I thought, well, somewhere secretly I knew I wouldn’t get this baby. But why? What was wrong with me?
I thought for sure I would be rejected, ostracized. Yet, I wasn’t. No one assumed the worst of me. Our friends in Michigan, our colleagues, for the most part, were wonderful and supportive. Came by, called, emailed, brought food and included us. Made me believe this is not your fault and you are not a freak.
I began my blog, found online friends, and found out that’s not how it always works when a child is born still or dies shortly after birth. So many others didn’t have anywhere near the love and support that we did. So many others were treated as if their child and pregnancy had never existed. I felt miserable and yet somehow so secure and lucky. Since we’ve moved, I’ve missed that comfort and trust, the friends who’d I’d only met in my mid-twenties, who suddenly became old friends. It wasn’t universal though. I lost a truly old friend for awhile, and still don’t understand what I did even though it seemed a long time coming, that I’d be rejected.
Two thirds of our family tried hard, were obviously reeling, scared, confused, but they called, visited, sent things. Thought of us. We’ve moved on with them, as a whole family. But those that didn’t, four years nearly have gone by and I’m still angry at them. Using whatever fairness I can muster, I can see they didn’t change. I did. If we went on in a peaceful détente, I could manage. I’m good at that. They, however, judge and sometimes, very harshly. Without, from what I’ve experienced, ever apologizing, or truly acknowledging that while we have a wonderful life in Samuel, in some ways, we got a shit deal.
We own a tiny grave in Michigan. According to google maps, it is 632 miles from where we live now, and yet it’ll never be far enough away to not be a part of me.
If, however, we try to be open and discuss how it has felt these past few years to the non-supportive family members, we get blank dismissal, without even full acknowledgment that Natan was a person. Reminded of how other people have had it hard too. I’ve never claimed to have had it the worst. I know how much harder everything could be for me, in any and every aspect of life. No one could possibly think I’m as lucky as I feel to have had a child like Samuel.
My point is, however, that family and friends aren’t supposed to tell us we’re not good enough. It often seems like at least one very significant member of the family feels the need to do that and worse, no matter how things are going for us. (This family member’s actually harder on Josh than on me.) I’m not used to that, though, being judged not good enough, and it continues to be a hell of a shock.
So what does this have to do with the novel? Larry and Silas, the main characters, are outsiders in different ways. Larry is a white man, but an outcast, unfairly ostracized and persecuted. Silas is not an outcast by personality, but he is a black police officer in rural Mississippi, and because of his past relationship with Larry, feels implicated in Larry’s exclusion.
Larry’s weird, but at least until the novel’s conclusion, very rarely angry when he ought to be, only when he’s pushed farther than most people ever have to go. He’s actually perhaps one of the sweetest and most benevolent adult male characters in a novel I’ve encountered. Until the end of the novel, it’s as if he doesn’t know that what’s happened to him is really not random. Evil and unfairness sometimes are easier to accept when they have an abstract cause. By the end, however, Larry realizes (I think) that it’s not the universe or even the unknown that has done it to him, caused him to be an outsider. Specific people did it, and in the process destroyed much more than his life.
Crooked Letter got me thinking about what it could have been like if more people had been afraid to cross our threshold after Natan’s death, or were saying or treating me like an outcast. Or if more people had told me in the past four years that I wasn’t doing all that I could, working as hard as I could, or being a good friend. That enough time had past, time to move on. It’s been hard enough dealing with just the very few.
I can only think to explain it like this though. In college, a professor insulted me for my accent (Midwestern) and said I didn’t sound intelligent when I spoke. I got so angry, thinking, “you don’t know what you’re talking about,” and harped on that comment for years, but of course, also tried to change how I spoke. My anger inspired me I thought, however, to work harder. I felt pretty good about myself then, having accomplished the first major goal of my life (getting out of my hometown) and finding that not only did I do that, but I was doing it very well. That one comment was the uncommon one. Yet, I thought it affected me as much as the countless dozens of kind words almost every other professor had for me. When I faced rejection in my twenties, I’d respond the same. Smile nicely, and think, screw you. I forgot that it was a rare event for me, or thought I’d done something to earn my inclusion. When I met the person I’m speaking oh-so-abstractly-of, he was already harsh and judgmental, but I thought, he’s just an ass who doesn’t know who I am or what he’s talking about, and I don’t care.
I still think the former, but not the latter. I do care, but I now also want to turn around and say, “Also, why are you so damn mean and just how many people have you hurt?” It’s incredibly difficult to pull yourself together when things in life aren’t going well and you feel like a freak and a failure. I’ve felt like an outsider before, believe me. But if even just a few more people in my life four years ago had been like him, I would not have been able to manage pregnancy, marriage, Samuel, graduate school and an overall good life.
Unlike being bookish and a little nerdy, or other reasons I’ve felt different before, my dead son is not a good reason to feel like an outsider. His absence is not a motivation for me. I felt like a diseased slug when he died, and had my friends and family not showed up, I would not have healed myself.
Now, when I think about unkind and bullying words, something is different. Suddenly, I can see just how cruel rejection is and I can see just how often people do it to one another for reasons I cannot explain. I can see how other rejections in my own past may have had an influence but really, it’s the accepting and welcoming others that made anything and everything good possible.